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Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick] The Government is very fond of using statistics when it suits it but if we look at the statistics on Government expenditure on third-level education then we have a different picture. The Government spends less than 6% of gross domestic product on third-level education. When we compare this with other countries, unfortunately, we are nearly at the bottom of the pile. We are 46th out of 50 countries. That is a fall of 29 places since 2017. We need answers on the reason that has happened. Why have we fallen 29 places on expenditure on third-level education in less than four years? The Minister must address this as a matter of urgency.

Returning to the leaving certificate, we must start a conversation on it, as it is out of date and needs a major overhaul. We must ask the difficult questions and get the answers. Has it now become a rat race for CAO points or is it serving a different purpose? If we remove the barriers to third-level education, then the leaving certificate must go. Second-level education could help develop students more for life in general and prepare them better for third-level education if we removed the rat race of CAO points from it. We must develop more resilience among the younger generations so that they can cope better with the demands of modern living. I firmly believe that second-level education can play a major role in the development of young people and produce a more resilient and resourceful student in third-level education, which in turn will better prepare them for the demands of modern life but this can only be done if we remove the CAO points rat race.

I find it frightening that the statistics showed that, on average, one in six students drop out of university in the first year. That needs to be examined to understand the reasons for the alarmingly high drop-out rates. Is it because students have chosen the wrong course and, if so, why has that happened? Do they get enough guidance on the selection of courses? Do we need to look at career guidance at second level? It is obvious that something needs to be done. It is unacceptable that there is a such a high drop-out rate among students in their first year at university.

I acknowledge that the Government has recognised that apprenticeships still have a value in the education system. The apprenticeship scheme has a major part to play in developing students in careers that are financially worthwhile and offer a high job satisfaction rate. I call on the Government to make additional funds available to support apprenticeship schemes. They will play a major part in the post-Covid era. We must be more creative with apprenticeships and not just think of them in a traditional manner. There are many people today who still think that apprenticeships are only for electricians, plumbers and carpenters. We must raise awareness of the many valuable apprenticeships that are available.

I thank the Deputies for bringing this motion to the House. I support many aspects of it, but I cannot support all of it. I call on the Government to look again at refunding fees for students whose courses were affected by Covid. I acknowledge the refund of €250 in respect of fees paid, but this did not go far enough. I call on the Government to refund at least 50% of fees to students whose courses were severely affected by the Covid pandemic. I also call on the Government to drastically increase its annual budget for third-level education so that we are not bottom of the pile when compared with our European neighbours. I further call on the Government to explain why we have slipped 29 places in the space of four years when it comes to spending on third-level education.

I urge the Government to support the motion in respect of giving access to third-level education the same priority it was given in the late 1960s when access to second-level education was made available to everyone.

Deputy Carol Nolan: Information on Carol Nolan Zoom on Carol Nolan Tá áthas orm an deis a fháil labhairt ar an rún seo. Tá mé ag tacú leis an rún. This is a very deep and systematic problem that we are dealing with today in terms of educational disadvantage. As always, it disproportionately affects those in what are termed the lower socioeconomic groups in society. I am aware that the Department is working with the European Commission on the independently appointed consortia of consultants on the Cassells report and that the key aim of the review includes an examination of the funding options for higher education. I hope the Minister's commitment that the review will be completed towards the latter part of quarter 2 of 2021 will materialise.

The Minister will be aware that the issues concerning access are deeply embedded in the education system. In 2019, I called on the then Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, to make immediate provision for the re-establishment of the educational disadvantage committee to advise on policies and strategies to be adopted in order to identify and correct educational disadvantage at all levels. I welcome the great work that is being done, but if we are to build on it, then the educational disadvantage committee must be reinstated.

The Higher Education Authority released a report entitled A Spatial & Socio-Economic Profile of Higher Education Institutions in Ireland. The report concluded that students from less well-off backgrounds and geographical areas continue to experience significant and systematic levels of social and class disadvantage in the education system. I know the Minister will accept that it is not a lack of ambition or an absence of dreams for a better future that is the problem for young people; more often than not it is the financial inability to give effect to that ambition. My hope is that the efforts we are making here today and going forward will recognise this and lead to a proper, affordable and fair system of access to third-level education or apprenticeships that young people so richly deserve.

We must broaden the range of apprenticeships available, but we must also ensure that they are promoted as much as possible and that they are seen as being as valuable as a third-level degree. It is very important that perceptions change and that the value of apprenticeships is realised and recognised.

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins I fully support the motion. There are so many issues of serious concern to students in higher education. Even last week I raised a matter with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in the Dáil concerning motor mechanics apprenticeships with SOLAS. Although the students completed phase 2 of their apprenticeship in December 2020, they are still awaiting the official results of exams and cannot progress to the next phase. The course was supposed to take four years, but it now looks like it will take seven years. What plans are in place for those students? That is the kind of situation students find themselves in.

An issue that is raised with me time and again is refunds for accommodation. The families of students are in great difficulty. I am aware of 19 students and their parents who were asked to pay for accommodation since the arrival of Covid even though the students cannot use it. They must pay upfront and in full just in case they go back to college. There is no system in place to refund them. This is not good enough given the times we are in at present. The same is true of fees. Students cannot get refunds. It is ridiculous that they are asked to pay fees upfront when they cannot attend college. It is an outrage and there should be plans in place to help these young people. Students from west Cork and other rural parts of the country have basically been left behind because they do not have broadband. These are serious issues. It is a case of one issue coming on top of another and students are incurring stress as a result. Students try to earn money during the summer, but they could be penalised for that later and they might not be able to get a grant from SUSI, which is terribly unfair. I have often seen situations where the parents' income was just a little over the threshold and the child was disqualified from receipt of a grant from SUSI. Parents are working very hard to pay mortgages and lots of things are not taken into account. It all comes back on the students and their families.

Unfortunately, we will again have the same disaster this year with transport for young children going to school. That is another very stressful issue for families, although it might not fully relate to today's motion. I have often fought in the House for students to get a driving lesson sorted. They are trying to do their theory test and it is ridiculous in this day and age that theory tests cannot be done online. That brings me back to the situation concerning students who are trying to work to subsidise themselves and who must drive to work in rural communities so that they can continue in college. I am sorry, I am eating into my colleague's time.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I thank People Before Profit for tabling this motion. The debate is a timely and interesting one that we should have. Ar an chéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil do na daoine a bhíonn ag obair i SUSI. They do a very hard and dedicated job and they are very helpful. SUSI has settled down now from when it started. There is significant discrimination against rural people. While Covid was a calamity, it should have given us the opportunity to catch the third-level education sector by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake because there is a lot of dead wood and inequalities. Change is badly needed.

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